The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Thursday it had suspended food distribution to 1.1 million people in central and southern Somalia after Islamist militants blocked deliveries in parts of the famine-hit country.
A Somalian government minister said the suspension could worsen the humanitarian crisis in a country where 250,000 Somalians already live in famine conditions and a total of 4 million need aid, according to UN figures.
The ICRC, which was one of the last agencies working in rebel-held areas, said militants had stopped its trucks since the middle of last month in the Middle Shabelle and Galgadud regions.
“The suspension will continue until we receive assurances from the authorities controlling those areas that distributions can take place unimpeded and reach all those in need, as previously agreed,” Patrick Vial, head of the ICRC delegation for Somalia, said in a statement.
The ICRC said it was talking to al-Shabaab, an Islamist rebel group linked to al-Qaeda, to try and solve the problem as soon as possible.
The rebels, who are hostile to Western intervention, outlawed 16 relief agencies in November.
Somalian Minister of Agriculture Abdullahi Haji Hassan said the action by the rebels would cause another humanitarian crisis and called for international help to avert a disaster.
“Al-Shabaab wants the Somalis to perish,” Hassan said on Thursday.
The suspension also hit the ICRC’s distribution of seeds and fertilizers to farmers, part or its emergency operation begun in October last year to combat the effects of severe drought and war.
“We are in touch with local representatives of al-Shabaab where the events have occurred — 140 trucks have been blocked since mid-December,” ICRC spokesperson Marie-Servane Desjonqueres said.
Somalia is the ICRC’s second-largest humanitarian program after Afghanistan, with an initial budget of about 70.2 million Swiss francs (US$74.5 million) for this year.
Its programs to help severely malnourished children and provide healthcare and clean water in other parts of Somalia, including Mogadishu, were continuing, Desjonqueres said.
“The suspension of aid will have effect on both civilians and al-Shabaab ... al-Shabaab fighters are parasites,” said Hirsi Yusuf, the director of Somalia’s federal and reconciliation ministry.
Residents said the militants wanted only Islamic agencies to provide aid in the areas it controls and many would flee to the capital Mogadishu to find food.